Republicans Call for Inquiry Into Whether Obama Paid ‘Ransom’ to Iran In Exchange for American Prisoners

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce (R-Calif.) has called for further inquiry into the Obama administration’s handling of a deal that won the release of several Americans held in Iran. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce (R-Calif.) has called for further inquiry into the Obama administration’s handling of a deal that won the release of several Americans held in Iran. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Republican lawmakers are calling for an inquiry into the administration’s decision to pay a $1.7 billion claims settlement to Tehran after Iranian hard-liners reignited concerns that the money was ransom to secure the release of American prisoners.

The dispute is the latest point of contention between the Obama administration and Republicans vehemently opposed to its handling of negotiations with Iran over a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and an agreement to free several Americans, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, from Iranian detention.

The settlement was over a claim long pending before an international tribunal in The Hague set up to resolve disputes between the United States and Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis spanning from 1979 to 1981. The sum of $400 million, plus $1.3 billion in interest, settled claims over money Iran paid decades ago to buy weapons from the United States that were never delivered, after Iran’s revolution broke out.

“There was no benefit to the United States in dragging this out,” President Obama said of the settlement last weekend after the nuclear deal was implemented, adding that the country probably saved “billions” by striking a deal instead of waiting for a judgment. “With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well.”

But where the administration presented the confluence of events as simply politically expedient timing, leading Republicans saw the troubling sketches of a ransom deal. And in Iran, the commander of the country’s Basij force reportedly boasted this week that Iran had secured the money as a price for letting the Americans go.

“This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spy, and it was not related to the [nuclear] negotiations,” said Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, according to Iran’s Fars news service.

Now some Republicans in Congress want a reckoning from the State Department over a deal they say will encourage other countries and groups to capture Americans and try to bilk the United States out of more cash.

“The timing and details of the U.S. cash transfer of $1.7 billion indicates it might be a ransom payment and it is likely interpreted as such by our adversaries,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry this week, citing Naqdi’s comments and asking several pointed questions about how the payment was discussed in diplomatic negotiations.

“This concession was never raised by the State Department as on the table, which the Administration must answer for,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said in an emailed statement Friday. He is also angling for an inquiry into the claim settlement and how it may have related to the prisoner release.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was one of the first critics to label the transaction “ransom,” though he has not decided whether to establish an official inquiry into the matter.

The administration has denied any suggestions that the United States engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement for the release of the American detainees, financial or otherwise. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest described the prisoner deal as a “humanitarian gesture.”

And the parallel timing of deals is hardly unique.

“It’s not uncommon for the U.S. to have to play three-dimensional chess in its relationships with other countries,” said John Bellinger, who was the legal adviser for the State Department under President George W. Bush and currently works for the firm Arnold & Porter.

He added, however, that if the negotiations over prisoners and the settlement of the claim really were separate, the White House could have done more to ensure that the two events would not look like a quid pro quo.

“If there really was no linkage, I’m surprised the State Department did not delay the announcement for several weeks,” he said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Karoun Demirjian